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ICSR BLOG SERIES Part 5: Atkin Fellow Perspectives on the Arab Spring

11/04/2011

I arrived in London on February 1st to become an Atkin Fellow . Ms. Amany Soliman my colleague from Alexandria, Egypt, was scheduled to arrive the same day, but she did not, it took her another 10 days to join me as the revolution made it impossible for her to travel. While I was eagerly waiting Amany’s arrival I followed the news, my attention on what was history in the making in my region. More than just curiosity, I had a personal angle this time, I was both worried about Amany and wanted to have enough information in order to have the right questions to ask her.

I will always remember those first days we spent together, moving from one computer to the other to in the office to get the updates, until finally we were all in the room together when the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation came. Amany had tears in her eyes and I felt so proud to be next to an Egyptian during this moment of victory and change. I went online immediately and wrote under my Facebook status “Mubarak is down. My respect to the Egyptian people for inspiring us to believe in the power of the people. Lets hope that the military council will assist in the democratic transformation”. Most of the comments from my Israeli friends were pessimistic. One of them wrote “every attempt for a revolution toward democracy in the Arab world ended with a country more extreme and more Islamist”. This is, in fact, a good account of Israelis’ response to the changes in the region – mainly fear of the unknown.

From London the view looks very different. Every day is a lesson. Through talking to Amany I have learnt so much about the politics of the region and about how Israel is perceived. I learn that Israel is constantly used by Arab politicians to divert discussion from internal problems to a commonality which units all. In events I am attending I hear young Arabs – Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian (and others) – talk about their aspirations for different political structures, mechanisms and culture. Though they are very proud of their communities, they are also very critical of their leaders and demand change which will bring about a unique combination of representation, equality, accountability and respect for Arab traditions and culture. Not to follow the West but rather to learn from it while creating their own ‘political creatures’. If there is something the revolution in Egypt has taught me, it is that the people of the region are saying ‘no’ to coercion and power rule and that this is their struggle to lead and own.

In Israel today, people are also struggling but their voices not always heard. In a country where the need for security overshadows all other sounds, the public debate on social issues such as equality, welfare, education and so on is very hard to conduct. While in London a quarter of a million can march the streets against the government, Israelis find it hard to mobilise themselves in order to back social struggles.. Indeed Israeli citizens registered a victory a few weeks ago when former President Katzav was sent to prison for sexual harassment and rape, thus making it clear that all are equal in front of the law, but they also fail to demand equality for various minority groups amongst them, especially the Palestinians.

On March 30th Palestinian citizens of Israel marched to commemorate the “Day of Land”. An event conducted each year since 1976 to commemorate a demonstration held by Palestinian citizens opposing government plans to change the demography in the Galilee from one dominated by Palestinian inhabitants to one dominated of Jewish inhabitants. The demonstration in 1976 ended with six killed by the Israeli police and since, the yearly event symbolises a call by Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality. I can predict that their voices will not be heard as the headlines will deal with the rockets sent from Gaza to Israeli cities in the south, the complementary Israeli air force attacks on Gaza, the search in the West Bank for the terrorists who placed a bomb in Jerusalem at the end of March, and so on. Israeli politicians will tell the people that we have to be strong and united against such hazards and then they will calm the people by telling them that we are prepared, and have new weapons to protect ourselves. Meanwhile the Knesset  with a very right wing composition will legislate another law which uses security or social cohesiveness as a reason to inflict restrictions on the rights of minorities (including those of the Israeli left). So why is it that people in  Israel who hold democracy so dear to them, do not rebel? Well, sometime they say “things need to get much worse before they get better” and in the case of Israel it is clear that a lot ‘worse’ needs to happen for people to get out of their comfort zone and into the streets. This could also be a lesson from Tahrir Square, decades of tyranny needed to pass before the people could say “enough”. I hope this will not be the case for Israel.

People in Israel are watching the developments carefully, all anticipating some kind of escalation. It is clear that the winds of change in the region will not stop at the (yet to be determined) borders of Israel. But unlike our neighbours the situation in Israel-Palestine has known more than 60 years of failed revolution. For the Palestinians to bring change now and an end to the Israeli occupation, they must have a clear strategy and unity. The second Intifada in 2000 proved deadly for the Palestinians, massively affecting daily aspects of their lives as restrictions were inflicted on their freedom of movement, a fence established to separate certain areas, checkpoints built which amongst other things harmed trade and so on. The Intifada not only did not achieve its aims it actually worsened the Palestinian situation and sent both sides on course for a decade of violence with no positive political outcome.

The Israeli government as it seems now does not have a clear strategy to end the occupation and the conflict. One might say the unsteadiness in the region actually works in its benefit. In this round it is the Palestinian leaderships who are setting  the agenda, with attempts by the Palestinian Authority led by Abu Mazen to realise statehood through building institutions, encouraging a non-violent struggle and focusing on international recognition. The other line led by Hamas and other forces from Gaza is that of violent struggle. Israel is not leading but reacting to these strategies, making it clear that West Bank is not Gaza.

Eyes are now set on September when the UN assembly will vote on whether to recognise Palestine on the borders of 1967. I truly hope that with the help of the world and the Israeli peace camp a resolution will come soon for the Palestinian people and their long desired state will be established. Afterwards Israelis will turn inside and start the much needed work needed to clean our own house and ensure all its people live in prosperity, security, equality and peace. This is probably the last call for the Two State Solution, and I can only pray that we do not escalate further.